Molecular phylogenies map to biogeography better than morphological ones

Jack Oyston, Mark Wilkinson, Marcello Ruta, Matthew Wills

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Phylogenetic relationships are inferred principally from two classes of data: morphological and molecular. Currently, most phylogenies of extant taxa are inferred from molecules and when morphological and molecular trees conflict the latter are often preferred. Although supported by simulations, the superiority of molecular trees has rarely been assessed empirically. Here we test phylogenetic accuracy using two independent data sources: biogeographic distributions and fossil first occurrences. For 48 pairs of morphological and molecular trees we show that, on average, molecular trees provide a better fit to biogeographic data than their morphological counterparts and that biogeographic congruence increases over research time. We find no significant differences in stratigraphic congruence between morphological and molecular trees. These results have implications for understanding the distribution of homoplasy in morphological data sets, the utility of morphology as a test of molecular hypotheses and the implications of analysing fossil groups for which molecular data are unavailable.

Original languageEnglish
Article number521
JournalCommunications Biology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 31 May 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Tim Astrop for useful discussions and suggestions related to plotting the data as well as Tamás Székely, Polly Russell and Catherine Klein for useful discussions. J.W.O., M.R. and M.A.W.’s work was funded by the John Templeton Foundation grants 61408 and 43915. M.A.W.’s work was funded by BBSRC grants BB/K015702/1 and BB/K006754/1, as well as BBSRC studentship 1923592.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022, The Author(s).

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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